LARGO — A bespectacled man wearing a black robe and yellow sash read the names of the St. Petersburg College graduates into a microphone. One by one they walked across the stage at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks to pick up their diplomas and drown in camera flashes. With each new announcement, yelps and whistles and applause sputtered from the crowd.
Dozens of names down the list, the man in the black robe came to one that for just a moment made him pause. His voice slowed.
"Melissa Danielle Dohme."
She is 20. Dohme has a goofy sense of humor, she dreams of one day becoming a nurse, and she should not be alive.
"On January 24th," she had told the crowd minutes earlier, "I was critically injured in a brutal domestic violence attack."
Her speech left out the most disturbing details. According to authorities, her 6-foot-4, 245-pound former boyfriend had tried to murder her that day. Investigators say he stabbed Dohme 32 times across her hands, arms, face and head. He later told police he had at first attacked her with a pocket knife until he decided that wasn't enough. He retrieved a larger blade from his pickup, then came back.
The stabbing only stopped, investigators say, because a passing couple interrupted and called 911.
She was covered in so much blood that emergency personnel didn't know she had blonde hair. She lost two teeth and cut a nerve that nearly paralyzed the right side of her face. For months, she couldn't shut her eye and, still, her smile sags. She suffered a stroke that impaired her balance. She couldn't hold a pencil. Doctors doubted she would ever walk again without a cane.
Robert Lee Burton Jr., whose name she seldom mentions, has since been charged with attempted first-degree murder and is in jail.
For Dohme, Saturday was about things that Burton couldn't stop her from achieving. It was about earning her associate degree with a GPA over 3.9. About being named the Clearwater campus' student of the year. About hearing her name called and — without a cane and in 4-inch black heels — walking across that stage to pick up her diploma.
She posed for pictures until her cheeks hurt. She worried that her ears would show through her shoulder-length hair. She exchanged hugs with the school's president, William D. Law Jr. She teased a microbiology teacher who had given her a B. She showed off a French manicure on hands covered in scars.
She also talked of her future.
Less than four months after nearly dying, Dohme backpacked through Europe for six weeks. In her mind, she has already begun planning a return trip.
Beginning this spring, she'll increase her therapy sessions to three times a week. Between November and December, her smile moved a millimeter. That's a big deal. Her entire grin, she believes, is on its way back.
She plans to start working more hours at Morton Plant Hospital's Women's Center, where she has a job in guest services. She'll continue school part-time this semester because, in March, Burton is scheduled to go on trial.
Graduating was a milestone, but she views those days in court as the finish line.
She's ready to face him.
On a train ride between France and England, she wrote on her cell phone the words that she hopes to read at his sentencing. She thinks they'll surprise him. She calls it a "forgiveness speech."
"No anger here," she said. "Just happiness."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]